A conversation with Juan Jose Campanella, director of The Secret in Their Eyes

With THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, Argentinean writer-director-editor Juan Jose Campanella has created a multi-layered and poignant thriller interweaving the personal lives of a state prosecution investigator and a judge, with a manhunt spanning twenty-five years.
Recently retired criminal court investigator Benjamin (Ricardo Darin), decides to write a novel based on a twenty-five year old unresolved rape and murder case, which still haunts him. Sharing his plans with Irene (Soledad Villamil), the beautiful judge and former colleague he has secretly been in love with for years, Benjamin’s initial involvement with the case is shown through flashbacks, as he sets out to identify the murderer. But Benjamin’s search for the truth will put him at the center of a judicial nightmare, as the mystery of the heinous crime continues to unfold in the present, testing the limits of a man seeking justice and personal fulfillment at last.

2010 Academy Award winner Juan José Campanella is one of Argentina’s most renowned directors. In addition to directing, the Buenos Aires born Campanella has written screenplay for his feature films including: El mismo amor, la misma lluvia, El hijo de la novia, and Luna de Avellaneda. In 2001, his film El hijo de la novia (“Son of The Bride”) was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Campanella’s prolific directing career has garnered him several Emmy Awards as well as directing stints on popular TV series including Law & Order SVU, House MD and 30 Rock.

Bijan Tehrani: How did you encounter the idea of making The Secret in Their Eyes?
Juan Jose Campanella: After reading the novel. There was something in the novel that I liked very much, which was a mix of the genre of film-noir, but at the same time it had very realistic characters and very everyday characters. The characters didn’t feel like film-noir, but rather like a dramatic-comedy almost like an Italian movie; and the mix of those two things is something that I liked very much. There were certain things in the novel that didn’t resonate with me as much after much thought; the character of Irene was not a part of the murder case and therefore the last story between the characters was a separate storyline all together. I thought that If I could bring all of the characters together with passion and talk about a mirroring relationship for the main characters, then that would go along the main story of the murder. Once I decided that, I found a true line of passion through every character, and then I decided to make the movie.

BT: After watching the film, you can see that there are many different layers to it. It seems that it is up to the viewer to decide which layer of the film they wish to concentrate on. For example, one layer is justice, there is also humor, then there is the layer about the past of Argentina. How much is the past of Argentina relevant to the main story?
JJC: Well, we wanted to concentrate on a time that occurred before the dictatorship. We heard a lot of stuff and we talked a little about the state terrorism which began during democratic government between 1974 and ’75. So we wanted to concentrate on that period. To the Argentine audiences, it was a big surprise; there has never been a movie that talked a lot about that time, but I think that it struck a chord. In many cases, the movie treats it as a backdrop. We touch on it, but it’s not really about that. What went on at that time was very complicated and we just wanted to focus on it so people would be interested and would go on their own and investigate.

BT: How did you go about casting the film?
JJC: The main couple and the widower, I thought of those actors when I read through the novel for the first time. Without even thinking about making the movie, I just put the faces of those three actors to the characters, the rest of the cast was done by auditioning, except for the character of Sandoval, the friend; he is an actor that I wanted to work with for years, he is the number one actor in Argentina, but he is a comic. He makes very broad comedies and he has never worked on something of this scale, so we found that he could transform himself physically for the part and turn himself into someone from the seventies. The part does not have a lot of screen time, but it is a protagonist in many ways so I needed a very strong actor with a very strong presence, and that is why we selected him.

BT: How did you go about working with the actors and how much freedom did you give them?
JJC: First of all, I usually have a meeting with each actor and we talk about their character and we come to an agreement on how we see the character. I have those meetings early on because sometimes there are rewrites that come out of those meetings. Then I start working with the actors, but I don’t have a full cast read-through, I work with the actors in groups. Let’s say I work with Sandoval and Irene, we will talk for two or three days; we talk about the scenes, we read them, sometimes we get on our feet and act them out, but it is mostly a table reading. In about six or seven days we are usually done with the group readings.

BT: When it comes to the set, do you give any freedom to actors in terms of improvisation?
JJC: They have the freedom to come up with whatever they think and I have the freedom to accept it or reject it. There are many differences that we try to iron out during the rehearsal process, so by the time that we come to the set we all agree on the theme of the film, but if someone has a great idea, of course we will use it.

BT: How did you come up with the visual style of the film?
JJC: When it comes to the camera, I work it myself. I think that it is really the director’s vision; basically I do my own camera work and storyboards. When it comes to the color and the lighting, I cooperate much more with the production designer and the costume designer. After trying many different approaches, we decided to do the past with much more vivid colors than the present. The past has fewer-but-bolder colors and the idea behind it is that it is the color of his memory. He is writing a novel of what he remembers and when it comes to memory, you only remember the bold strokes of it; So the room was orange, the post offices are very red, and basically that was the approach. Within the present time-frame, the colors are very diffused and diluted and rubbed down; in the present, everything is right there in front of us and we cannot choose to make any selections with our mind.

BT: Did your background in television influence the visual style of the film?
JJC: No, I don’t think so. Actually, TV grammar is actually very different from films. The size of the screen is different and the relationship between the audience and the screen is very different. So on TV you don’t have many actors speaking with their backs to the camera, you don’t have shots where entire lines are off screen or where they have soft focus, and you don’t have many distant shots. So the pacing and the camera work is very different than the TV work.

BT: How do you think that winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film will benefit the film, in terms of acquiring a larger audience, and you, in terms of your future work?
JJC: Well, you are right in asking it as two different questions because winning the award has two different effects. For the film, winning the award is like night and day; it really is the most important award there is. It almost makes the movie into something that will be seen all over the world and it’s a huge help for the movie. For my career, I don’t think that it makes a huge difference. Perhaps there will be more visibility for a short time and I will get a few more opportunities, but if they are not projects that I love then I will not take them and eventually the attention will fade away. It’s huge for the movie and it’s sort of huge for my personal career.

BT: Have you considered making a film the in U.S.?
JJC: I made a movie in the U.S. about fifteen years ago and it was not a great experience, so I am not dying to make a film there, but I would not have any problems if the right project comes along.


About Author

Bijan Tehrani

Bijan Tehrani a film director, film critic and writer, works as editor in chief of Cinema Without Borders while teaching Language of Film and Film History at workshops nationwide. Bijan has won several awards in international film festivals and book fairs for his short films and children's books.

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